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NARP Region 12 Meeting 3/29/03
Old Town Mexican Cafe, San Diego, Ca
by Chris Guenzler

Right at eleven on a beautiful clear Saturday morning with a light Santa Ana Wind blowing, Ed Van Nordeck introduced himself to the 65 attendance and gave to plan for the meeting. Ed then introduced Tom Buckley, the Southern Pacific engineer who ran the cab forward down Alameda Street at the opening of Los Angeles Union Station.

The first speaker of the meeting was Richard Phelps who started out with Amtrak in 1973 in labor relationship. He came west in 1989 as Amtrak's Western region Assistant Superintendent. When Metrolink Commuter Rail service started in Los Angeles he became Metrolink Superintendent then later on became General Manager of Metrolink. Currently he is now General Superintendent of the Southwest Division of Amtrak. His region extends east on the Sunset Limited to Lafayette, LA, Marshall, TX on the Texas Eagle, the Heartland Flyer, Southwest Chief to Dodge City and the entire Surfliner Corridor.

He first thanked the NARP for their support of the National Network of Trains{a national system}. Richard talked about getting the wrecked cars at Beach Grove back into service. So far two Superliner Sleepers are back in service. He next stated that 92.3% of the trains in Los Angeles departed on time, that goal was 92%. Speaking of the dirty windows and cars sides of the Surfliner Fleet, Richard said the Los Angeles car washer had been out of service for the last two months. The washer has been repaired and one set of Surfliner equipment a week will be taken out of service and cleaned by an outside contractor. Also 10% of the Surfliners get shampooed once any given week. The Superliner II cars have had their toilet lines replaced due to a vacuum problem. These cars now have a constant vacuum system which has fixed the problem. The Surfliner Business Class seat back video system will be back in service in May with a car being tested in the yard presently. Rail lubricators will be installed along the Coast Starlight route to reduce wheel wear problems.

Phelps had high words of praise for David Gunn, Amtrak's Leader who is working hard with the DOT {Department of Transportion} to secure the grants needed for current operations. Gunn is committed to a National Train Network. Richard said trains like the Sunset Limited and Cardinal are non starters with their tri weekly schedules. He wants a daily Sunset Limited. He then told us that the Southwest Chief are to be rerouted through Amarillo,TX and Belen,NM when BNSF abandons the train's route through Raton. He want on to say that there may be a return of service to Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa,AZ in the future.

Our next speaker was Lynn Berberian who is in charge of stations and on board services for the Southwest Region who stressed the need for higher services. She told of Amtrak starting a new meal cycle in April on all National Network Trains. Each train would also have a Chef Special each night. The menus would change every three months. In June a new Lounge Car menu would be instituted. There would also be a return to the Blue Conductor Uniforms as grey will be only for the Acela Service. A new service manual will be given to all employees. Another major change will be that the conductors are in charge of the of the entire train including the onboard service staff. Amtrak will return Maricopa, El Paso, Houston and La Junta to full service stations complete with checked baggage. The Point of Sale System will continue to be used only on the Surfliner Trains and the Dining Car on the Coast Starlight. Cash registers would be used on the other trains. Nationally, new route guides will be put back on all National Network Trains with the Coast Starlight being the first to receive them. They want to return the Starlight to a higher level of service so sleeping car passengers will receive a warm chocolate chip cookie placed on their pillow at night and in the future coach passengers might get pillows and blankets. {Note:Via Rail of Canada already provides this service to it's passengers.}

Out third speaker was Mike Chandler, Amtrak's Southwest Road Superintendent of Operations. He told of Sunset Route Improvements that the Union Pacific had made and now ride quality excels from San Antonio to Los Angeles. In the future schedules we should see an hour removed from both the Sunset Limited and Southwest Chief as the Express Car business come to a close.

The forth speaker we Eugene Skorpowski, a thirty year member of the NARP Board. He started out giving the history of the Surfliner Service and the growth which started with state supported trains led to the increase ability to tap the public transportion market. Surfliner and Capitol trains serve a dense urban market with many transportion choices. The Surfliners is the second busiest rail corridor in the country. He said there is still a major need to reduce travel times and to increase connectivity between other services.

The San Joaquin Route was in new route started in 1974. Presently there are four round trips Oakland to Bakersfield and two round trips Sacramento to Bakersfield. There is still more room for growth. The San Joaquin Corridor is the fifth busiest in the nation. A key point to note is that the San Joaquin's requires Thruway Buses in order to be successful. This serve still needs more trains and better reliability.

The Capitol Service trains were his main topic. Started in December of 1991 with 3 round trips, it was the highest level of service ever started by Amtrak up to that point. The Joint Powers Board took over running the service in 1998 when there was just four round trips, one to Auburn and 3 to San Jose. Presently there are 22 trains a day and on April 28th. 2003 another round trip will be added bringing the total to 24 trains. The growth in ridership has been the key to this service. Add a train and the public will ride. The passengers can get free transfer coupons from the conductors good for a round trip on local transit. The lounge cars sell BART{Bay Area Rapid Transit} at a discount. 28% of the passengers use public transportion either to get to the train or after they get off or in some cases both. In the future there will be more trains to San Jose. 45 million will be spent for improvements on the Capitol Line between Oakland and San Jose for more track capacity. There is a need for reliability so maintenance people ride the trains to fix problems on the spot. The Joint Power Board is working hard with the Union Pacific, Amtrak and the State of California. Redouble tracking the Yolo Causeway would save minutes per trips as would just cutting the station stops from 2 minutes to 1 minute. Just that last thing alone could reduce travel time by at least 5 minutes. Another plan is to add a third through track at the Roseville Yard. Placer County is studying service to Soda Springs, Truckee and Reno. UP wants to return more of the double track to Donner Pass. Service would start with two trains to Sparks,NV and grow to four trains a day.

There was then a short question and answer session then lunch was served.

After lunch, Walter Stringer of North County Transit was the speaker. He is the Light Rail Manager for North San Diego County. the name of this service is to be called "The Sprinter". T-21 Funds are in the process of being redone. Transit Sale Tax expires in 2008 so Sanbag expects to have a ballot initiative ready to go to secure funding for the next twenty years. He then explained the type of services North County Transit Provides. These are the "Coaster" for commuter rail, "Breeze" for the buses, "Lift" for Paratransit and "Sprinter" the name of the light rail line. The cost of the "Sprinter" project is tagged at 351 Million to be spent on four building contractors and 40 rail vehicles. The line would have 30 minute headways on weekdays and an hour headway on weekends. The service would operate 18 hours a day with 6 left for BNSF freight operations of a night. The line would be 22 miles long with 15 stations along with 3 miles of double track when the service starts from Oceanside to Escondido.

The whole line will be designed to be double tracked in the future. A new grade of 1.7 miles will need to be built to reach Cal State San Marcos via a new loop track. The line will serve four of the major transportion centers in the region. DMU{Diesel Multiple Units} will be used to provide the service on the line. These vehicles will be non FRA compliant designed to be able to tackle the 4% grade on the San Marcos Loop. The cars will be air conditioned and the lines stations will be built in a European Style will low platforms. It will take three years to build. A major drainage problem east of Oceanside will take two years to fix properly so if negations with the BNSF get completed, the freight service over the line will be suspended and the freight trans loaded while the line is being rebuilt through the region. Opening day for the "Sprinter" service will be once again December 31, 2005.

Our next speaker was George Chilson, vice president of the NARP, He thanked everyone who participated in today's program. He started off sharing his views of optimism of David Gunn as he has: 1. fully qualified people working for and with him. 2. treated Amtrak as a National System and treating it as such. 3. not hidden anything so information is freely given. 4. taken action to eliminate poorly used service ie. the Kentucky Cardinal and the extended to Chicago Pennsylvania. 5. created confidence in the company by Congress for the 1.05 Billion in funding instead of the 521 Million that the Bush Administration had allocated in the budget. The Senate is allocating 1.8 Billion funding for 2004. Trends in funding are now going in the right direction.

The challenge of re authorizing and reform of Amtrak. He dismissed the idea the notion that 300 mile trips compete with Airlines. Try flying from Needles,Ca to Garden City, KS? There needs to be improvements in all corridor services like what California and Washington has done and the Midwest corridors hasn't. He then talked about Long Distance Train Myths: 1. People only look at end point stats. 2. Trips are not for 300 to 600 miles. 3. People don't us connections and networking. The 16 National Network Trains carry half of the miles of the total system. Their costs are lower than the short haul trains and Northeast Corridor. They have a 50% fare box recovery higher than the corridor trains. When the Coast Starlight carries 700 passengers that is equal to two full 747 planes.

The gathering effect was discussed next. Fact, passengers board at Inner City Pairs not just main city pairs. Many people use two or more routes to reach their final destination. Fare management proves that higher fares drive down volume and revenues. Get the facts out. The NARP final report has been given to all congressional offices as well as David Gunn. Forge coalitions to get people focused on short distance travel not just long distance. What we need to do is: 1. get Congress needs to get a dedicated funding for Intercity. 2. push for an improved National Rail System. 3. get full Amtrak funding while an agreement is reached. They have forged 71 endorsements from all over the nation for continued support for a National Network of Passenger Trains in America.

He then discussed the guidelines for Congressional Testimony at hearings. most importantly, praise Congress for what they have done. Talk about DOT involvement, performance standards, true operation costs, fare box recovery, new strategies and true network analysis. On the average National Network Trains 40% of the trips are 500 miles or shorter but only 20% of the Sunset Limited passengers fall into that category. When looking at train service, you must look at: 1. Passenger train miles. 2. Average passenger train loads. 3. Passengers per boarding. We need to get Amtrak's costs back into reality. Amtrak needs to report to the law. Looking at cost you must realize that commuter trains cover only 50% of their cost with the government paying the rest. New strategies must be to improve service not to remove it. Take the Sunset Limited which is below in fare ratio but only runs three days a week as the best unscheduled train in the nation but it's loadings and departures are above the national average. The Sunset Limited needs a daily schedule and reliable service. 31% of the Texas Eagle revenues comes directly from it's connecting Sunset Limited passengers. We must improve the National Analysis as one route does affect another.

The final speaker was Dorris Briggs, a long time NARP board member. She discussed that the AARP {American Association of Retired People} has over 35 million members and that their policy manual for 2003 should include something of support of passenger trains. We must have senior organization supporting the passenger trains in America.

The rest of the meeting was questions and answers. It had been a very informative and well run meeting. A special thanks to the NARP for having Trainweb at the meeting.


National Association of Railroad Passengers Meeting 29 March 29, 2003
By Richard Elgenson

This NARP meeting was held in the Old Towne area of San Diego California. It was attended by approximately 100 persons interested in support of Amtrak and other passenger rail systems. The meeting was emceed by Ed Von Nordeck who is associated with the rail industry.

First Ed introduced Tom Buckley, who had been involved at Southern Pacific in public relations capacity. His biography sounded like he grew up in the railroad industry. He eventually worked with Catellus Corporation as manager of Los Angeles Union Station.

The first guest speaker was Richard Phelps who has worked for Amtrak since 1973. By 1982 Mr. Phelps worked as Assistant Transportation Manager in Chicago, then came to Los Angeles by 1989 in a similar capacity. Mr. Phelps is now the manager of the Southwest division of Amtrak and maintains good working relationships with host railroads. Mr. Phelps first thanked the NARP for its support. Phelps said that he liked the way David Gunn has taken Amtrak back to a more traditional structure. Under Mr. Phelps guidance, the Surfliner corridor has set ridership records over the last 6 months and continues to get better. Amtrak looks to NARP for constructive criticism. Mr. Phelps then introduced several of his assistants, Mike Chandler who handles road operations, and Lynn Berberian who takes care of on board services. On the mechanical end, Amtrak is now going to focus on the repair of the approximately 100 passenger cars stored at Beech Grove that are in need of repair. The Southwest division goal of 92% on time is due to the mechanical department. Currently they are at 92.2% on time. Mr. Phelps told the attendees about the car wash being temporarily out of service and their diligence to clean the trainsets. One set is being worked on each week to restore the luster of the steel sides and clean the road grime off the windows. My return Surfliner train was in need of cleaner windows. He then told us of problems on the Superliner II cars to upgrade the toilets in the lavatories. There had been vacuum leaks and they were going to change relay type systems to electronic systems. Mr. Phelps tells his employees to "put yourself" in the place of the passenger. They intend to have video in the seat backs of business cars in operation by May of this year. He also told us of wheel flange wear problems that they were working with host railroads to mitigate via rail lubricators. We then got a corporate overview. From the legislative viewpoint, Amtrak is going to get funded within 10-20 million dollars of the 1.2 billion it needs. The Sunset Limited and Southwest Chief are doing better business wise and Phelps is interested in getting the Sunset to be daily instead of tri weekly. Due to a possible abandonment by BNSF, the Southwest Chief may have to be rerouted. Amtrak is looking into some way to keep the route the same. Otherwise, a rerouted Sunset Limited may restore service to Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa Arizona.

Lynn Berberain stated that her goal was to raise the level of service. On April 1st they will institute a menu change that will be in a 3 month cycle instead of 6 months. They intend to have a chef's special on a nightly basis with a different menu item each night. In June, they will have a new lounge car menu. For uniforms, they are switching most of Amtrak, except for Acela service, to blue uniforms. I have already seen some personnel with these uniforms, and they look sharp. Lynne said that this will be the Amtrak standard. There will also be a new service code. The conductor will be in charge of on board services. This will eliminate the need for an employee to be a special OBS manager. Ms. Berberain also asked NARP for feedback. After the budget cutbacks in the last several years, Amtrak intends to restore stations back to full service. Most trains will utilize a cash register except for Surfliners which will have point of sale. For other technological advances, some personnel will use POT's as an experiment. Route brochures are also coming back and will be on the Sunset and Chief by summer. For Coast Starlight sleeping car passengers, they might expect a chocolate chip cookie before they retire for the night. Mmmm, cookie.

Mike Chandler is responsible for on time performance and on board crews. On time performance has been improved to excellent levels as stated above by Mr. Phelps. Ride quality on the Sunset Limited from Houston to Los Angeles is good. Amtrak has reduced levels of mail express cars. As far as schedule changes, they desire to squeeze an hour out of the Sunset route.

The next speaker was Gene Skoropowski from the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, an entity which oversees the Capitol Amtrak California trains. Mr. Skoropowski described himself as an architect/planner who happened to get involved in passenger rail operations. We found out that the Surfliner, one of California's oldest train routes, received upgraded frequency as the state of California channeled money into this route. Some key points involved in improving a successful train operation are reduced travel times, reduced amount of conflict, and increased connectivity. For the Capitols, hourly frequency is a major goal. The San Joaquin trains have increased to 12 round trips per day. Originating from Bakersfield, they have arrivals to Sacramento and Oakland. Interestingly, all San Joaquins traverse Stockton, but have a different station stop there due to changing host railroad tracks. San Joaquin service is growing into the fifth busiest corridor in the country. This route has connectivity of the southerly end with a bus to Los Angeles, and several choices on the northerly end. Mr. Skoropowski said that the San Jouquin needs an earlier originating train out of Bakersfield to yield a better first arrival time in Sacramento. An 11 am arrival is not good enough for some business travelers. He pointed out that the Central Valley towns have high growth rates to sustain the new train frequencies. On the subject of the Capitols Corridor, it started out with 3 round trips and now is up to 11 round trips. April 28 2003 marks the increase in service to 12 round trips. They have extended the trains to further extremities such as Colfax on the north and San Jose on the south. Capitols also offer free transit transfers and also sell discounted BART tickets. Skoropowski said that if they had to give up 85 cents out of a 14 dollar ticket for transfers, they were happy to do that. Capitol Corridor is working with Union Pacific to use 35 to 40 million dollars in capitol improvements for double tracking in certain places. They also want to cut travel time to about 1 hour 45 minutes and cut dwell time. Other little items to help move the trains along could include cutting the smokers break. Spotting the train at the exact same location at stations was discussed. A brief discussion of the physical plant included triple tracking an area in Placer County to help the route to Roseville and Auburn as well as track work near San Jose. The speaker complained about the 5 year permit process for 12 to 18 month construction projects. Another idea would be to run some trains as far as Reno and Sparks Nevada. This project would start with 2 round Sparks trips per day when implemented. Mr. Skoropowski said that one Lake Tahoe ski area told them that if Amtrak could deliver skiers, they would build a $1 million platform "tomorrow." Another Capitol Corridor idea is to retrofit the new Carquinez Bridge for Capitol trains. Currently it is planned for light rail vehicle weights. The bridge upgrade would not be for longer distance trains though. Skoropowski said that California State funding will hold at current levels, therefore, not get cut. The current level will hold same as last year, current year and next year. Any possible extension to Redding would be in the hands of CalTrans.

After a lunch break of Mexican food, the next speaker was Walt Stringer of the North Coast Transit District. The NCTD was formed around 20 years ago and runs branded transit such as the Breeze, a bus, the Lift, which provides transit for disabled people, the Fast, which provides "on demand" service, and the Coaster, a 40 mile plus commuter railroad service from Oceanside to San Diego. Their next project is the Oceanside to Escondido light rail project called "Sprinter." Mr. Stringer provided an overview of the Sprinter which will operate on a BNSF branch line which is 22 miles in length with 15 stations and to be double tracked in the future. Sprinter is planned to open in 2005 and will cost around $351 million, $300 million of which will be distributed in 4 contracts and $41 million for vehicles. The rolling stock is planned to have a European look and will be diesel powered. NCTD is looking at least two possible suppliers, both of whom he declined to name. They are planning for about 30 minute headway, and to accommodate about 12,000 riders at inception. This line will run 18 hours per day with a six hour window for BNSF to provide freight service. For construction purposes, they are considering halting freight service for the 2 years of construction and use trans-shipment to continue to deliver to freight shippers. Oceanside, already a multi-modal station, will have a Sprinter terminal just to the south and on the inland side of the San Diego Northern commuter/freight tracks. There are two colleges, Palomar College and the California State University, San Marcos, whose students who will be a major component of travelers. The reason for using DMU style vehicles is their versatility for low density transit lines. They are also capable of climbing a 4% grade which this line contains. There will be one aerial station near CSU San Marcos. NCTD intends to institute a "smart card" system from Cubic Systems. There will be no grade separation from roads, but they plan on a TWC system, one which allows trains to approach a station and not activate crossing gates until the rail vehicle is ready to move forward. The system is planned for 50 minutes travel from end to end. Other features will include level boarding, with vehicle floor 20"-22" above the rail. There will be some setback at station platforms for freight cars which have a slightly different envelope than passenger DMU's. They plan a parallel design for 15 of the 22 mile double track route with a maintenance road and bikeway. A 1.7 mile loop will diverge from the existing right of way to include CSU San Marcos. They will charge the standard NCTD fare.

The final speaker was George Chilson, one of the regional NARP vice presidents. His first points were on the political level. NARP has a feeling of optimism due to the installation of David Gunn at Amtrak. The current NARP view of the Amtrak system of one of an integrated system for rail travel in the United States. Mr. Chilson noted that one Gunn's first moves was to cut the Kentucky Cardinal. Then he restored the Pennsylvania Flyer back into a passenger train from one that hauled freight. Mr. Gunn got the 1.2 billion dollars for Amtrak as noted above. Most important for Amtrak is the reauthorization and reform for the system. Mr.Chilson said that the national network is not secure. Routes under 300 miles are cost competitive with airline travel. Good corridors such as Surfliner, Capitols, and San Jouquin are bad for a national system. Long distance trains are not competitive.

Secondly, Mr. Chilson spoke about "assembling the facts" about Amtrak. The level of 50% fare recovery is important. Mr. Skoropowski gave out a handout regarding the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority which addressed this issue. Boarding levels are good on the Coast Starlight, something like 750 people. No modern aircraft has this much capacity. Aircraft can be turned over repeatedly during the day as can short distance trains. Mr. Chilson added that train riders will use more than one Amtrak route on an itinerary. The fare structure does have an impact on volume and revenue for Amtrak.

The next part of the discussion involved "use the facts." He demonstrated the use of through cars from the Eagle to add to the Sunset. Next was to "get the facts out." There seems to be sums of money that a long distance train loses "per passenger" and the speakers did not agree with the numbers stated in the media. Lastly, NARP wants to see coalitions forged between interested parties. He stated that they wanted to see a trust fund set up for Amtrak, one similar to the Highway trust fund. They also campaign for a preserved and improved national passenger rail system. NARP wants to see full Federal funding while setting up such a trust fund.

Mr. Chilson asked the meeting audience admit who has any working relationships with their local politicians so they might promote the NARP agenda. NARP pays attention to Congressional hearings while developing testimonials. NARP would like to see Amtrak brought under the auspices of the U.S. department of Transportation. They desire to have Amtrak prepare a business plan. They believe that Amtrak should use their tax dollars for the benefit of all Americans. They want to supply Congressional policy guidance in a number of areas. He maintained that ridership is just that - ridership whether a passenger is short distance or long distance. They want to have input on the number of trips versus the length of trip and want to examine the maximum load factor. As we all know, transit system farebox recovery is never 100%. NARP wants to see a network analysis. Cutting a route may not actually save the money that it might appear as it can cause a domino effect. By cutting a train, the result will be less transfers to the next train. They are promoters of "improve not remove" applied to Amtrak. He said that the Sunset might be targeted even with above average loadings. It is usually late but this a three times per week operation. Trains such as the Sunset connect many places at distances of 300-500 miles apart. According to Mr. Chilson, 40% of the passengers use the Sunset as a short distance train. One other speaker, Mr. Phelps, agreed with Chilson that making the Sunset a daily train would help it be on time. The frequency of the Sunset limits trains such as the Eagle to feed passengers to another route. Daily service would improve return on investment. Further, NARP wants to see the system referred to as a "national network train" instead of "long distance train." The modern Amtrak system is not a nostalgia train and the new reference sounds politically better.

The meeting officially ended and Mr. Von Nordeck announced that the Amtrak contingent of Mr. Phleps, Lynne Berberian, and Mike Chandler would do a question and answer period. Among the points that Mr. Phelps made was that Las Vegas service is hoped to begin by the end of 2004. Amtrak paid Union Pacific the fee to preserve their slot. Trackwork will be commenced next year at Cima grade on the UP in eastern California. Part of the holdup is an EIR that mandated that a type of turtle had to be given access under the track with a railroad already in place. Mr. Phelps told a funny, but sad anecdote regarding LA to Las Vegas service. The original poster announcing a 1998 startup of service has a few post-it notes on it replacing dates year after year..


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